The most effective leaders know how to teach their employees the value of one powerful quality, one that most likely helped them rise to the top themselves: Discipline.
The great sports coaches are transparent examples of this. Teaching and emphasizing discipline to prepare for the contests to come is what best guarantees that under the pressure of competition each player will feel free to make the right decisions and execute to the best of their abilities.
None did this better than Vince Lombardi, considered along with John Wooden as one of the two greatest coaches of all time. Lombardi’s faith in “Freedom Through Discipline,” a motto etched on an archway at his alma mater, Fordham University, was absolute. Lombardi trained his players to discipline themselves to identify and cultivate their talents, and then prepared them as a team ahead of each season and before each game.
He believed deeply in identifying and cultivating talent. He knew that getting the best from each athlete, what that athlete uniquely had to offer, was the key to success. As he said to Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, “I don’t want you to be anybody else but you. I need you to be the best version of who you are.”
Never was “Freedom Through Discipline” better demonstrated than in the greatest game of Lombardi’s career, the 1967 NFL Championship Game between his Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys. Referred to by historians as the “Ice Bowl,” it was played in game-time weather of 15 degrees below zero on a frozen field. The players on both teams had trouble gaining traction on the ice-like ground. When the trailing Packers had the ball on the Dallas 1-yard line with a chance to win the game in the closing minute, their runners could not gain firm enough footing to run the ball across the goal.
With 16 seconds left, Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr called the Packers’ final timeout and came to the sideline to confer with Lombardi. Starr told Lombardi that he and the offensive lineman thought that there was a way to create a path for Starr to dive across the goal line — a play that was not in the Packer playbook. Lombardi quickly agreed, but when asked by the Packers bench what play Starr was going to run, Lombardi shrugged: “Damned if I know.”
Starr scored on the play, and the Packers won the championship (and then the Super Bowl). All of this happened because, on the most disciplined team in football, the quarterback and two of his linemen felt the freedom of thought to devise a new plan at the most crucial moment of their season, and the freedom of action to execute it.
Because of his focus on discipline, Lombardi was regarded by most of the public as a controlling master who micromanaged his teams. In fact, the opposite was true. On game days he often had very little to do, as he left most of the on-field decisions and execution to his players.
John Wooden, the UCLA basketball coach who rivaled Lombardi in greatness, took a similar approach to develop the full potential of his players. In training and practice sessions Wooden drove each player to cultivate his best. During games, however, Wooden was largely hands-off. In a move that today would be viewed as heretical, he did not like to call time-outs near the end of close games, believing that his players were better left to figure out what to do for themselves. One of Wooden’s players described his coaching method this way: “There was total structure and complete freedom.”
The success of Lombardi’s and Wooden’s methods has gone down in the history books: Lombardi led his team to five championships in seven years, and Wooden won 10 NCAA championships in 12 years (including an unprecedented streak of seven championships in a row). As micromanaging has increasingly become the norm for too many managers today, these stories are a timeless and worthwhile reminder that, with some faith, the hands-off approach can lead to great success.
Although seemingly a paradox, “Freedom Through Discipline” turns the difficult into the reachable, in a way that is natural and stress-releasing. Managers and those in leadership positions who instill in their employees a discipline to focus on and nurture innate talents, giving them freedom and independence to take ownership of their decisions when it comes to “crunch time,” will see the empowering dividends pay off.
Keith Danko is the founder of Witherspoon Partners, a leading player in the alternative asset industry. He has over two decades of experience building and managing businesses, most notably restructuring and serving as CEO of ACAM Advisors. He also served as CEO of CQS US and as an executive director of Goldman Sachs, where he built the firm’s international asset-backed securities business. A Duke University graduate with a Harvard MBA, he is the author of “Within Your Grasp,” has written extensively on trends and careers in alternative assets, and has authored the white paper “Portable Alpha: An Updated Perspective.” Follow him on Twitter at @WithinYourGrasp
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